The Lighthouse Customer: Bot Colony

By Christopher Livingston on July 7th, 2014 at 9:00 pm.

Soldier robots? Oh, I'm sure that's a good idea.

Each Monday, Chris Livingston visits an early access game and reports back with stories about whatever he finds inside. This week, speaking with robots, and the resulting loss of his sanity, in Bot Colony.

Science-fiction writers love driving robots crazy, from Speedy in Asimov’s “Runaround” to Ash attempting a magazine-murder in Alien. Is it time for a robot to drive a human crazy instead? Considering that talking to a robot in Bot Colony for a couple hours reduced me to wailing “BLOOP! BLOOP! BLOOP!” into my headset, it just might be. There’s video evidence below: I’ll let you be the judge. Bloop.

Bot Colony is an adventure game that involves talking to robots, and while it can be played entirely with typed text commands, the real appeal is in literally speaking with the game’s robots through a microphone. The game supports Windows Speech Recognition, which I’ve never used before, so I began with about ten minutes of reading text into my microphone. Cleverly, though, the game uses this text to explain how the bots of Bot Colony work, the best ways to ask (and answer) questions, and how to avoid confusing them.

Tell me again about the C-beams. Glittering, you say?

The game recommends doing the calibration exercise multiple times from start to finish, but I only went through once, which might explain some of the difficulties (bloop!) I encounter later. Once calibrated, I’m given an introductory mission, which begins with one robot teaching me how to speak to another robot.

Hoo, boy. We're off to a rocky start.

I recorded some of this training mission in the videos below, but first, an apology: Um… sorry. Sorry about the audio quality, the inept transitions, the inconsistent titles, my cruddy mic, my irritating voice, and my big dumb stupid head. Sorry!

Also, profanity warning! I drop at least two f-bombs and use a handful of other, lesser swears. Let’s watch!

Okay, talking to robots seems simple enough! Let’s see if I can make it do things. The mission is, look around the various rooms of the house through hacked security cameras, and compare each room’s current state to photos taken earlier. My job: spot what has changed (objects not in their original positions) and direct the house robot, using voice commands, to put things back in their proper places.

In the future, just type HACKING a bunch of times to accomplish hacking.

We begin in a kid’s rec room, where a toy giraffe, originally placed on the top of the cabinet, has been knocked onto the floor. No worries, Jimmy and I will sort it out. Eventually.

So, that took a little doing. As you can see, it helps to ask Jimmy what objects are called to make sure you’re giving him the proper instructions.

We then went on to the master bedroom, where an alarm clock needed to be placed on a… well, Jimmy and I disagreed about the name of the thing the clock needed to be placed on. Also, surprisingly, Jimmy started asking me questions, hoping to learn more about alarm clocks. Spoiler alert: he did not learn more about alarm clocks. We ended our work in the bedroom by closing a drawer (while learning a lot about drawers!) and attempting a seemingly insurmountable task: moving a weird statuette from one shelf to another. How did it go?

Clearly, Jimmy and I were hitting our stride and really starting to communicate like a chore-robot and a camera-spy who had known each other since childhood. Next, we flew through the bathroom, replacing a couple of items without a hitch. I tried to make Jimmy use the toilet, but he wasn’t impressed with my immature attempts at potty humor. Also, I forgot to record it.

He doesn't stare into the mirror and wonder what love means, either.

We were getting better and better. Our next challenge, rotating a pot on a stove so the handle stuck out in a different direction, was a breeze:

With the smashing success of the kitchen pot behind us, Jimmy and I forged ahead into another bedroom for our next task. The photo showed three board games sitting in a stack on a coffee table: a purple game at the bottom, a blue one in the middle, and a yellow one on top. Now, however, while the purple game was still on table, the yellow and blue games were on the floor. The way Jimmy and I were rolling, this would be a snap!

How about a nice game of chess?

Actually, it caused me to snap. In other words: bloop. Afterwards, I went into the living room, hoping for a fresh start. Jimmy, unfortunately, insisted on dwelling in the past. Check it out:

Keep in mind, all of what you just watched is only the training simulator to prepare you for, like, the actual game, which has a story and characters and different locations and a whole bunch of robots. I played through a bit of Episode 1 (of the two playable episodes available as of this writing), which took me to the titular Bot Colony. There were robots everywhere: one was running a check-in desk, two soldier-bots were guarding a door, two more were running the baggage claim, and yet another was in charge of a taxi stand.

The future still has lost luggage.

I’m on the island to investigate some corporate espionage, though most of my time in Episode 1 was spent in the luggage room, first trying to retrieve my briefcase, which is a bit of a puzzle involving codes, colors, dates, and, of course, giving the proper instructions to Mike, the baggage retrieval bot, and Mary, the x-ray technician bot. Then, I have to retrieve another briefcase, for reasons that are spoilers and winds up being a much more complicated task.

Stuff knocked on the floor just reminds me of Jimmy.

In fact, I’m still in the luggage room, due to failing that mission twice and running into a glitch on my third try. Despite that glitch, and my occasional exasperation with Jimmy, it turns out I enjoy the hell out of telling robots to do things and then watching them do things. When it works, it’s oddly satisfying. When it doesn’t work, it’s generally amusing.

It's okay. I speak their language. Bloop.

This experience was based on Alpha 7 of Bot Colony. If you plan to buy it, make sure you read all the requirements very carefully. You must have 64-bit Windows 7, and if you use Dragon for speech recognition, it sounds like it won’t work with a Steam copy.

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13 Comments »

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  1. Hawkseraph says:

    I usually don’t like video (more of a written words type), but I’m glad I made an exception. I don’t know why watching an obtuse robot be directed by mangled commands is so funny, but it is.

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      Lexx87 says:

      I completely agree. It’s something about the growing (but slight) frustration in his voice as it continues not to understand. BLOOP. The last line of the last video was brilliant.

      Great stuff Chris!

  2. Viroso says:

    “Can learn with DEMONS?!”

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    J. Cosmo Cohen says:

    Chris, I laughed to the point where my wife came over and asked what was so funny. I couldn’t even get out what I was laughing about (you trying to direct a robot). She just rolled her eyes and walked off.

    Please, no matter what game you tackle next Monday, post more videos of you and Jimmy.

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    Big Murray says:

    While watching someone else struggle with it made me laugh out loud, this sounds like a game devised from my worst nightmares.

    This is something which shouldn’t exist until we’ve invented voice recognition technology that doesn’t suck.

    • EMI says:

      To be fair, you can type directly into the game. The speech-to-text is a 3rd party piece of software made by Nuance (Dragon Naturally Speaking), and the devs have little to do with it here. The language pipeline here is strictly text-to-parse. I imagine it wouldn’t be as funny if they typed directly though.

  5. Tacroy says:

    As a programmer I found #4 particularly hilarious, because the whole “stack things” problem was one of the very first AI universes ever formalized.

    Jimmy should be able to do that in his sleep, it’s just ONTABLE(A) AND ONFLOOR(B, C) AND HANDEMPTY with goal state ONTABLE(A), ON(A, B, C) AND HANDEMPTY, the inverse kinematics it takes to make him place something on a table without accidentally punching a hole in it are more complicated than this.

    It’s not his fault you don’t know how to speak his language!

  6. Kefren says:

    Surprised I’m the first to post the obligatory Rab “11” clip.

  7. Beowulf says:

    So, what for do you use alarm clocks anyway?

    • YogSo says:

      They are an integral part of dynamite-based timed bombs, of course.

  8. The Random One says:

    Who the hell uses an alarm clock to listen to music, Chris? You’re blooping worse than Jimmy.

    • Chris Livingston says:

      Well, you know, clock radios? Ours even lets you plug an iPod into it. So we listen to music on it sometimes.

      Look, I was caught off-guard by a robot asking me questions. OKAY?